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Mike Vouri: The World Turned Upside Down

  • Written by Mike Vouri

My maternal uncle, Bob Bentley, was a third-class machinist’s mate on the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1941. Early in the year he sent my mother a postcard from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the fleet had been moved the summer before to intimidate the Japanese, who had taken a lesson from Western Europe and were extracting resources and colonizing by force throughout greater east Asia. 

The U.S.S. Oklahoma (BB37) was a Nevada-class battleship, 583 feet long and displacing nearly 30,000 tons. She capsized from several torpedo hits during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing 429 crew members.

My maternal uncle, Bob Bentley, was a third-class machinist’s mate on the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1941. Early in the year he sent my mother a postcard from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the fleet had been moved the summer before to intimidate the Japanese, who had taken a lesson from Western Europe and were extracting resources and colonizing by force throughout greater east Asia.

But the Japanese were not intimidated, as my uncle discovered firsthand on December 7. What happened to him that day is a family legacy, a story that would be told and retold in our house each December. I was proud to tell anyone who would listen that my uncle, whom I didn’t really meet until I was past 50, had been on a ship that capsized and actually turned turtle!

“Uncle Bobby” was a product of my grandfather’s first marriage. He disappeared from my grandfather’s life until he was 17 and his mother could not “handle” him anymore, as he explained it. He was then dispatched to Lafayette, California, where he came to know his stepmother, sister (my mom) and younger brother in the first of two houses my grandfather designed and built. To look at my mother’s photos, it seemed an idyllic country life among towering oaks and along a leafy creek that chattered during the rainy season.

But it was the tail-end of the Great Depression, and work was not plentiful. My grandfather perceived that my uncle required a steady income, not to mention molding, that only a tour in the armed forces could provide. It seemed a safe bet. Although the world was careening toward war in 1939, the United States was safely tucked between vast oceans, and before long Bobby was on a southbound train bound for Navy boot camp in San Diego.

Bob Bentley at his father’s home in Lafayette, California with his sister, Norine (the author’s mother), probably in 1940. 

Norine Bentley Vouri and Uncle Bob Bentley taken in Spring Valley, California (just outside San Diego) in 1991.

Bob Bentley as a second-class machinists mate later in the war, following the sinking of his destroyer, the U.S.S. Strong (DD467), off Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands.

A set of photos in my mom’s collection reveals him home from training, or perhaps with his ship in port, dashing and handsome in his middy blouse and “Dixie cup” hat, which was creased along the edges and cocked at a jaunty angle. As in many of my grandfather’s photographs, my mother and uncle are perched on his motorcycle or lying on their stomachs on the front lawn, propped up on their elbows, side by side. It was with Bobby that the family myth was born of the armed forces making “men” of wild and unformed youths. In later years, my uncle and I spent hours on his patio drinking beer and scoffing at the notion. For it was in the armed forces that we both became journeymen in the arts of drinking, smoking and learning the creative arts of Anglo-Saxon invective.

I finally heard my uncle’s Pearl Harbor account directly from him in the late 90s, and only because my teenage son had the good sense to ask. We had gathered on his patio one evening—my uncle, my son Alex, my cousin Doris and I—where he had built a small fire in an old barbecue grill.

“Uncle Bob, could you tell us about Pearl Harbor?” Alex asked.

“Why would you want to know about that?” Bob said.

“Because you’re my great-uncle,” Alex said. “And I might want to tell my children someday.” It was as simple as that. Here is his story.

Bob and his best friend were in their quarters in the bowels of the ship putting on tropical whites, fresh from the laundry, in preparation for a day ashore in Honolulu. They had gone halves on a Harley-Davidson and were excited about taking their first ride on the island. They’d hidden the motorcycle behind the Army/Navy YMCA in Honolulu, the last stop on the bus line from Ford Island.

The klaxon hammered out battle stations after the first bombs fell and the torpedoes were splashed into the harbor. My uncle said he could already hear and feel the torpedoes penetrate the ship’s port side and explode deep in the hull. His friend dashed for the ladder down to the fourth deck, where in months of drill they served on a fire control party. His friend had forgotten in the heat of the moment that they had been reassigned similar jobs on the second deck.

By the time Bob neared the new station the ship lurched violently to port, and he was hurled to the bulkhead, by then nearly under his feet. He rushed to the ladder and fighting gravity made it to the fantail, which was twisting like wire rope from the force of the explosions. He slipped down the teak deck to the by-now submerged gunwale, turned and was stunned to see the starboard rail towering above. He turned back to the oily water and before stepping in regarded his immaculate whites. “Shit,” he thought for an instant, and then the great ship moaned and capsized, driving him into the harbor floor.

Mired to his knees in the mud, he swayed in the murky water, the pomade leeching out of his hair so that it stood straight up and undulated in the eddies like sea grass. The enormous hull closed over him disgorging rope and wire, mops and buckets, belts of ammunition—anything that hadn’t been lashed down or stowed—while thousands of gallons of bunker oil gushed in billowing clouds from the ruptured hull. Men were screaming and thrashing like herring in the flooding compartments where some would remain for days, but their cries were overwhelmed by the screech and roar of machinery ripping loose and crashing on the overheads.

I’m dead, Bob thought.

But no sooner was he resigned than a bubble of expelled air enveloped and shot him to the surface, where the oil was a foot thick and on fire in some places. Men were calling for their mothers as fighters whirled, bombing and strafing through towers of greasy smoke tinged yellow and black. Coughing up oil and treading water, Bob’s eyes stung and blood and oil ran from his nose and ears. But he could see well enough down Battleship Row to watch a single bomb fall straight as a plumb line and bury itself in the forward magazine of the U.S.S. Arizona. There was a burst of light and a fiery blossom before the shock wave swept through the harbor and slapped air from his body in one clap. The ship rose from the water, seemed to hover in agony and then slammed down, burrowing into the seabed, its forward superstructure left hanging over the submerged bow. The Arizona’s eruption peaked about a mile high, then tumbled earthward, pummeling the harbor with white-hot shards of steel and the blackened offal of human beings who had been dreaming only moments before.

Numbed by shock and sickened by oil, Bob began to slip under again when two men paddled by, pushing a float that had torn away from the Okie’s seaplane. They cradled him between themselves until he could catch his breath, which took some doing after all the oil he’d swallowed. But after a minute, he breathed easier and turned to offer thanks. That’s when a fighter drew a bead on the float and released a burst of 50-caliber machine gun bullets, riddling the float and sending all three underwater. Years later, as with other survivors, Bob would swear that he saw the pilot’s goggled face grinning at them through the Perspex.

When he resurfaced, the float was gone as were his rescuers. He alternately treaded water and swam toward Ford Island while the premier American catastrophe of the 20th Century, a day that even the unborn would learn never to forget, continued to rage about him. He finally made it to the island, picked his way through the mud and eelgrass and collapsed on a knoll, where he gasped and vomited with hundreds of other oil-stained sailors. Already the dead were accumulating further ashore, aligned like cigars on the grass.

He hadn’t been there for more than 20 minutes when an officer from the destroyer U.S.S. Blue happened along and called for volunteers to fill out the crew. Who wanted to get in on the fight and administer some immediate payback? Bob raised his hand and was marched off to a ship a tenth the size of the Oklahoma. The new recruits were given showers and dungarees and assigned to various duties throughout the ship. Despite his petty officer rank, he was put to work in the galley scrubbing pots and pans…and peeling potatoes.

“That’s the last time I volunteered for anything,” Bob said. “But that was better than a lot of the guys who had to sweep the harbor for bodies.

Those bodies popped to the surface for weeks afterward, Bob remembered. It was almost as bad as having to pull them down from trees, where many had been hurled when the bombs struck ashore. Many more people in town were killed in their homes, front yards, cafes, hotels and at bus stops by antiaircraft fire because the panicked, inexperienced gun crews fired over the city. What goes up must come down. The American people were shielded from the worst of this news.

“What about your friend, Uncle Bob?” Alex asked.

He sighed the way we do when we’re resigned to the truth of a thing.

“I never saw him again,” he said.

“And the others on the seaplane float?” I asked.

He smiled and the hurt vanished.

“I’m glad you asked me that. I was at a Pearl Harbor Survivor’s luncheon not long ago, and one of the “Okie” fellas at my table mentioned that he’d hung onto the seaplane float with a couple of other guys. Said he’d always wondered what happened to them. I said, ‘Hell, I’m right here,’ and we sat there and wept like a couple of babies.”

The family was frantic when they heard the news on the radio that Sunday morning. It was several days before they learned he was safe. Similar fears struck a couple of years later when his destroyer, U.S.S. Strong, was torpedoed in Solomon Islands. It was a Type 93 Long Lance, the most effective torpedo of the war, fired from more than 11 miles away. They never had a chance. My uncle was scalded when the ship broke in half beneath him and the boiler blew, catapulting him 100 feet into the sea. He subsequently spent months in the hospital, after which the Navy placed him in command of a yard tug in San Diego where he entertained and numbed himself and the lingering pain with serious drinking.

For Bob the shooting war was over, but as with most of us who have seen the elephant, it never really was. As a Pearl Harbor survivor, he regularly attended ceremonies in Honolulu in later years. The highlight was a ride back across the Pacific to San Diego as a guest aboard the U.S.S. Pearl Harbor (LSD 52), a landing dock ship launched in 1995.

According to the Associated Press, only a handful of Army/Navy/Marine survivors will attend this year’s ceremonies. The youngest among them will be an estimated 98 years of age, as 17 was the minimum enlistment age. Bob will not be among them. He passed in 2014, the holder of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart and a slew of memories.

Fortunately for us, he finally shared them.

Last modified onThursday, 07 December 2023 21:40

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